Escape from Mt. Graham

If you have already read the last story I posted, entitled “Breaking into Prison”, you will know that Susan and I had fled down out of the Pinaleño Mountains in a winter storm. Lucky to be alive, we had abandoned my Toyota 4×4 pickup out in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t take but a day or two before I started to think about how I could go about retrieving it, as it was my sole source of transportation, and I was really in a bind without it.

I started to make some phone calls. First on my list was the U.S. Forest Service – I called the office that handled the Pinaleño Mountains. They weren’t very sympathetic. The ranger laughed and told me that, almost every year, some idiot like me pushed his luck with the weather and was forced to leave his vehicle up on the mountain until the snow melted in the spring. When I told him how much snow had fallen in that storm, he said that they wouldn’t be plowing the part of the road where my vehicle was sitting for the entire winter, period. He went on to say that plowing would go part of the way in because the local university was doing work on top of one of the high peaks, but that plowing wouldn’t get any closer than 7 miles from where my truck was sitting.

Hmmm, I wondered if I could get a hand from another source. I did a little investigating, and came up with a phone number for a man from the University of Arizona. He seemed to be in a position of authority, and was sympathetic to my plight. It turned out that the U. of A. was preparing a site on the top of Hawk Peak, at 10,627′, for a huge instrument called the Large Binocular Telescope. Their site was less than a mile from Mt. Graham, the range high point. Most people in the area simply referred to all of that high country as Mt. Graham. A new road had been bladed to that mountain top which took off from Swift Trail, the main road along the high country of the range. For the sake of the U. of A.’s work, the Forest Service had agreed to keep the road plowed along Swift Trail to where their route to the scope site turned off. From where their access road left Swift Trail, my truck was seven miles farther west, sitting near Soldier Creek campground.

He thought he would be able to help me out, but he swore me to secrecy. Several times a week, they made a run up to the telescope sight with men who were involved in the early stages of planning. At the base of the mountain at the Swift Trail Junction, they had a small facility where I could meet them with any supplies I wanted to bring up the mountain. They would then take me up as far as possible. I expressed my gratitude and started to gather the things I felt I would need.

My idea was to get back to my truck and try my best to get it out and back down the mountain. I thought that I just might be able to pull it off. Here are some of the things I decided I would need: a set of tire chains; two 5-gallon cans of gasoline; two snow shovels; plenty of food and water; two 16-foot 2″x12″ planks; a good first-aid kit; extra clothing and footwear. I still had to get all this gear and myself the 120 miles to the U. of A. facility. A friend agreed to loan me his pickup truck for an indefinite length of time. I loaded up all of this stuff and, on the appointed day, drove to Swift Trail Junction, where I found their compound. There, I met my contact from the university for the first time.

His men loaded up all my stuff into one of their trucks, and said I could leave my friend’s pick-up safely parked in their locked compound as long as I wanted. Sitting on a trailer was a large snow-cat, so big that eleven men could sit inside it. They strapped my planks on to the trailer and hitched it up to a powerful pick-up truck, and away we all went. As we drove the paved road up the mountain, it became more icy the higher we went. It had been recently plowed, so that helped. Twenty-one miles later, we arrived at the end of the plowed part of the road. Here, there were two choices – one went up to the telescope sight, the other went to my abandoned pick-up truck.

The men started up the snow-cat, backed it off its trailer, loaded all of my gear into it with the planks strapped on the outside, and we were all set to go. They had been given the green light by the Forest Service to take me and my gear in to my truck, but they were not allowed to tow my truck out with the snow-cat. I have no doubt the cat could have pulled my truck, but it wasn’t in the cards. Also, the U. of A. didn’t know their crew was helping me out, and the boss told me to keep my mouth shut or he could lose his job. Of course, I agreed.

I was surprised to see how quickly the cat moved over the deep, frozen snow on its two huge treads, arriving at my truck in what seemed like no time at all. The men unloaded my supplies on to the snow and wished me luck. They promised to come back to visit me in a few days to see how I was doing, and also to phone Susan to let her know what progress I was making after checking in on me. And then they were gone. As they disappeared from sight around the corner, the isolation of the place came crashing down around me.

The weather was perfect – clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight, temperature in the mid-20s. Six days had passed since our epic escape from the storm. I had had a lot of time to plan what would happen at this moment, how I would begin the rescue of my truck from the mountain. Even the day had been carefully planned, weather-wise. The forecast promised a storm-free week, a good window of opportunity for my venture.

What I first wanted to try was to see if I could actually drive on the long 2x12s over the top of the snow. If I could, it might save me a lot of shoveling. Well, in no time flat I realized the futility of that idea. The boards would twist and turn every which way when the wheels started up on to them, and it was chaos. Dang, if it had worked, it might have saved a lot of time. Okay, what next? I tossed the boards well off to the side of the road, then set out putting on the chains. I had to dig the snow out from around the tires, then jack them up one at a time and wrestle with the chains. Once they were on, I felt better.

I started the engine and let it warm up. Thank God, it started up right away – I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to figure out what I’d do if it hadn’t. In the week I’d been gone, the snow had consolidated quite a bit. Here, on this flat stretch out in the open with plenty of sunshine, it was maybe a foot deep. I put it in gear and tried crawling up and on top of it, but the weight of the truck collapsed it. I tried backing it up and then taking a run at it, but the truck would quickly bog down. Sometimes I could get up on the frozen crust and go a few feet, but then the truck would break through and all four wheels would sink in, each in their own hole. That forced me to use the shovel to dig out the snow between the front and back wheels, plus some out ahead of the front wheels. Then, I’d experiment with different gears to see what gave me the best purchase as I tried to move forward.

The day wore on. The shoveling was hard physical work, and I was sweating pretty hard. I had to be careful not to get chilled by standing around for any length of time, so I just kept on shoveling. My tires were pretty wide, so, allowing a bit extra beyond their width, I was shoveling a path about 18 inches wide for each tire. Once I had shoveled out ahead for a ways, I’d then put the truck in gear and make a run at it. Sometimes I got lucky and could ride up and on top of the virgin snow for a bit before grinding to a halt or breaking through.

I wouldn’t leave the engine running constantly, as it sometimes took me half an hour or more to shovel out ahead. With the engine off, the only sounds were my hard breathing, the scraping of the shovel and sometimes a few birds singing. Otherwise, it was quiet as a tomb. The consistency of the snow varied a lot. Often, there was an icy crust on the top, with softer snow underneath. Sometimes, it was packed hard all the way down to the road surface. And every imaginable combination in between. Thank God the weather was good.

By the time the sun set, I was pretty tired. It had only been a 5- or 6-hour day of shoveling, and I had managed to move the truck a distance of a few hundred yards. As I sat in the cab of the truck in dry clothes, munching on something and listening to the radio, it became obvious to me that I was going to have to dig the truck all the way out. Oh yeah, I should mention that as big as that snow-cat was, it didn’t compact the snow down at all. It had such a large tread area that it rode right along on the surface without breaking through, so its passage earlier that day hadn’t helped me at all.

Then I thought, what if I tried driving at night when the temperature was lower and the surface would be more solidly frozen. Maybe the truck could ride on top for a longer distance without breaking through – it was worth a try. I crawled into my sleeping bag for a while to sleep a bit. Hours later, I got up and headed outside to have another go at it. It was completely dark, with no moon, only starlight. Surprisingly, given the bright snow surface, the starlight was enough to see fairly well. Staying well-fed and hydrated was a priority, so I made sure to eat a lot and drink lots of fluids. The fact that it was cold didn’t mean that I wasn’t losing a lot of moisture through sweating, and only by eating enough could I keep my energy up. Once in a while, I would turn on the headlights for a bit to see better out ahead.

From where I started, it was a long, steady uphill stretch for a full mile, and it was a real killer. The elevation gain was only 200 feet, but it felt like much more. I worked on and off through the night, taking a break now and then. An hour or two after midnight, the waning moon rose to brighten my labors. I was hoping that during the few hours before dawn, the frozen snow would better support the weight of the truck, but it didn’t come to pass, maybe because it was all uphill and I never could get any momentum. When dawn finally broke, I was beat – I had hardly slept during the night, so eager was I to continue with the grand experiment. And so started Day 2.

Crystal-clear blue sky, no wind, nice and cold. I was psyched as the day began, because my map showed me that once I reached the top of the hill, a long downhill stretch would be my reward. I was getting better at judging whether the snow would support the weight of the truck, so regulated my shoveling accordingly. Sometimes I would end up digging out ahead for a hundred feet or even more. Seeking some small pleasure, I left the truck radio playing while I dug – I could actually hear it once in a while when my panting and scraping stopped! I wasn’t afraid of running the battery down, as the truck engine was running often enough to keep up the charge.

Sometime during this day, I crested the hill and, after a level stretch, started downhill. What a great feeling – I could build up a little momentum. During the afternoon, I was in a long shady stretch and the snow was frozen pretty hard – I drove on top for a few stretches. When the day ended, I kept shoveling, getting a rhythm going. Once again, I napped when the mood struck me, but worked on and off through the night.

Day 3 dawned as clear as the others. Basically, I just kept shoveling. The isolation was complete. No other humans, no interruptions, no problems. Sometime during this day, I figured I was halfway out, and that was encouraging. Shovel, drive, shovel, drive, eat, drink, pee, nap, eat, shovel, drive, shovel some more. The vast majority of my time was spent shoveling, way more than everything else put together. I was being really careful not to pull a muscle or throw my back out – if I got hurt, it’d be all over. Although I had a spare shovel, I never needed it, but it was good insurance – if the one had broken and I’d had no other, I’d have been screwed.

Day 4. After another night of shoveling, I just kept going. By now, I was completely resigned to the fact that some stretches would be really hard, and yet there would be easier bits too. On the difficult stretches, progress was painfully slow but I think I had a pretty good attitude about the whole thing. There was nothing for it but to keep plugging along, one foot at a time. Every bit of forward movement brought me one bit closer to freedom. I could zen out for hours at a time, and that made things easier. The nights were darker than ever, as the moon rose later each night and was an ever-thinner crescent. It stayed cold all day – I never saw any melting snow. The nights usually brought a good hard freeze. By the end of Day 4, I felt that freedom was near.

Day 5. After another successful night of shoveling, I took a break and assessed my situation. With any luck, today, December 6th, could be the day I reached the spot where the road would be plowed. Then, it’d be an easy drive down the mountain and home.

Throughout the morning, I shoveled snow with the determination of a caged badger. Man, nothing was going to stop me now! Energy seemed to ooze from every pore as I attacked the snow, my sworn enemy. Around mid-day, I came to a long uphill stretch. After shoveling out my two wheel ruts for the first hundred feet or more, I got into the truck and revved it up. I think I had it in 4wd, low range, second gear. I popped the clutch and built up some speed, hitting the un-plowed section with a huge bump and just kept on going. Even though it was up a fairly steep hill, for some reason I got better traction than on any of the previous days. My truck had sprouted wings, and I sailed up that hill at a good clip. Even when I rounded a corner, I didn’t slow down. All of a sudden, I hit a wall of snow, smashed through it and was airborne. I came crashing down on to the surface of the road with a mighty bang, then slammed on the brakes. It was over! The wall of snow was where the plow had piled it up, and I now sat on the smooth open road, plowed bare right down to the road surface which was nice and dry.

Setting the parking brake, I got out and starting dancing around, jumping up and down, shouting with joy – it was hard to believe it, but the ordeal was over. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as reality set in. It was then that I noticed, a few feet away and sitting under a tree, a man staring wide-eyed at me. He was totally shocked to see me, especially since I had just come from a place where nobody could have possibly been. I told him my story, but he didn’t know whether to believe me or not. He told me that he was part of the telescope crew, and was waiting there for somebody or other. I told him to tell his boss that I had made it out, and thanks for everything.

Driving down the mountain, I had a grin on my face that you couldn’t have wiped off with a baseball bat. My own truck was the one I drove back to Tucson that day. I came back to the U. of A. compound a few days later with my friend and we convoyed with his truck back home. It was curious that the telescope crew never did come back to check on me during my 5 days on the mountain, nor did they call Susan to give her a report. That’s okay, I couldn’t have done what I did without their help. One day I sat down and calculated that the total amount of snow I had shoveled would have filled 14 full-sized dump trucks. Thankfully, I didn’t sustain any injury. The Forest Service had never heard of anyone else pulling a stunt like that, shoveling their truck out to take it home.

To this day, I detest shoveling snow with a passion, and I will never put myself in a position again where I have to do it. Oh yes, one more thing – if you’re somewhere and it starts to snow, make sure you have an exit plan and leave even sooner than you think you should. Thanks for listening.

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